Building a Small Business Website (continued)
Assemble your assets
Before you start building a website, you’ll need content. Start by collecting your visuals in .jpg or .png format, including your logo. If you know the hex codes for your business colors (they are expressed as six-digit number/letter sets such as #000000), add them to your worksheet along with the fonts you use, addresses to your social media, and photos you want to use. If you are supplying the copy, put it all into a single Word document with the location on the site noted.
Get a domain name
Choosing a domain name can be challenging. The Internet has been around for decades now, so most of the really good domain names are gone, especially those that end in .com. There are other, newer domain name roots (the part after the period) such as .biz, .info, .pizza, etc., so you may be able to use your company’s name if you’re willing to use one of these newer naming roots.
To find a name, you’ll want to go to a site like godaddy.com, ionos.com, or networksolutions.com. Enter the desired name, and if it’s not available, these sites will offer up alternative names that are available. Sometimes you are also offered the option of purchasing the name you really want… for a price. Cybersquatters register names they think someone will want down the road and attach a higher price to them.
When choosing a name:
- Make it easy to remember and difficult to misspell.
- Include your business name, slogan or brand.
- Keep it as short as possible (e.g., www.tricolorpasta.com)
- Consider adding keywords that describe what it is you do (e.g., www.ginospizza.com)
- Consider adding your location (e.g., www.jmlawseattle.com)
When you register your domain name, you’ll be given the option of letting it be public or keeping it private. A private registration costs more, but keeps your personal information – name, location, contact information – out of the public eye, which means less spam in your email box and fewer sales calls.
A domain name should cost you between $12 and $25 per year, but some companies include this price in a hosting package, which will cover in a moment.
Choose your platform
As noted, our recommendation is WordPress, but there are others, including drag-and-drop site builders such as Squarespace, Weebly and Wix. If you choose WordPress, you will also need to have a “theme” for your site. A theme is part of the under-the-hood programming that creates the design of the site. Many of these are free; others have an annual or one-time cost. More on that in a moment.
A server is nothing more than a hard drive connected to the Internet. It stores all your files, and when someone types in your domain name, it points to the server at your hosting company. The server, in turn, sends the files back to the computer of the requestor, and the files assemble in the browser (Chrome, Explorer, Safari, etc.).
Geek Time: When you type a domain name in, your request shoots from your computer to a bunch of other computers around the world, asking for directions. The domain name is actually a series of numbers (18.104.22.168). Once a computer says, “Yeah, I know where that is,” the request is sent to the corresponding server. It then fires back all the file links through the Internet to your computer’s browser. This all happens in milliseconds, even though the request may stop a dozen or so servers along the way asking for directions.
Every server company is different, Shop around and read customer reviews before you select one. Don’t let them talk you into a fancy, dedicated server. All you need is a shared server, which can cost as little as $2.95/mo. Many hosting companies offer the domain name registration for free, so factor that into your decision as it is something you will need to renew annually. Some host companies will also include one free SSL certificate with a new account.
You will also have the option of getting email accounts with a server host. This is highly recommended. Having emails such as email@example.com is far more professional than having a Gmail or Hotmail address. Plus, customers will be able to contact you at firstname.lastname@example.org instead of email@example.com.
When comparing server plans, pay particular attention to bandwidth. Ideally, you don’t want to buy a plan that has a cap on data. Some lower-cost plans charge additional fees for any bandwidth above a set amount, which can add to your monthly costs.
Choose a theme
As noted earlier, most content management systems use a “theme” to control the site’s look and its features. Some of these are very rudimentary, and you will soon find yourself running into frustrating dead ends when you want to move a particular piece of content someplace else on the page, and the theme won’t let you.
Better to invest in a flexible theme that will never dead end. Elementor is one such option, though it still has certain limits in customizing the look and feel of a web page or the entire site. At the other end of the spectrum is Elegant Themes’ Divi theme, which allows you to customize nearly every aspect of a page’s look and feel, from the margins and columns to the buttons and fonts, all with a couple of clicks. The theme also allows you to create master elements that, when updated, will change the content or design element wherever it appears on the site. It’s about $250 for a lifetime license that includes updates that often arrive weekly.
If you have a design company working with you, discuss theme options with them. Your theme will be one of your most important decisions when it comes to building an online presence.
Finalize your site’s architecture
The architecture is how people move through your site. It starts with the navigation buttons and knowledge tracks that should be grouped into logical chunks so that a visitor quickly learns how to move through your site. Make sure you pay particular attention to the search feature and where it is located. It should be at the top of all your pages.
As you move down through the site, there should be links to other pages with additional content. Don’t overwhelm visitors with too many choices at the top of the architecture. That’s why grouping content logically is so essential. You don’t want to give a visitor a reason to click out of your site because they can’t quickly find what they are looking for.
Think of your site’s architecture like an org. chart that for a business showing who reports to who. The CEO at the top is the Home page of your site. Below that on your org. chart is your direct reports, which are akin to the top-level navigation on your site. Then the people that work under each manager on your chart are the individual web pages below that box.
Here are some additional tips:
- Include navigation at the top and the bottom so visitors don’t have to keep scrolling up and down.
- Make your page titles short and straightforward. It’s best if they fit on one line in your pulldown menus.
- Try to keep the primary navigation points to seven or less. Things like About Us and Contact Us can be in secondary navigation if you want to reduce the number of main entry points.
- Use a call-to-action whenever possible.
- Use site analytics after you launch to see where your visitors are going. Revise the navigation to make it easier to find the most requested pages, especially if they started out lower in the site’s architecture but have more views than pages you thought would be more popular.
If you have a web design firm, they will provide you with a recommended architecture and navigation, based on the assets you’ve provided and your initial meetings. You should also visit the sites of your competitors to see how they arranged their sites. Make notes about what worked well and what didn’t so you can optimize your own site while avoiding rookie mistakes.
Based on your site’s approved architecture, it’s time to build out your site. Pages are constructed to match the structure chart, and content and visuals are integrated into each page.
You must pay attention to keywords at this particular stage. Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, will determine how easy it is to find your website in search engines. How a page is named, the number of times a particular keyword is used, where it appears in the headline and copy, all help determine the site rankings.
Don’t worry too much if you don’t have all of these down pat before you launch. SEO is an ongoing process, and it’s always a bit of a game to massage keywords to improve the rankings of a particular keyword, page or the overall site. You can do this yourself or ask your web design team to do the work as part of their contract. Content management systems like WordPress have plugins that make this process fairly easy. Yoast SEO is something of a standard in this regard.
This is pretty basic work compared to creating all the stuff under the hood in the CMS. The template will determine a lot of the style and design for the pages. The focus at this stage is to make sure it looks good on the finished page and that all your content is easy to follow and is posting correctly.
There are plenty of YouTube videos to guide you through the process of setting up your site in a CMS like WordPress and there are groups on LinkedIn and Facebook that are dedicated to helping people maximize their sites and help you if you get stuck.
Pro Tip: If you are doing e-commerce, streamline the purchasing process as much as possible. Think Amazon.com’s famous “Buy Now” button. Every time a customer has to fill in information on a screen and go to another screen, they have time to think about the purchase they are about to make. The more screens, the more often they will abandon their cart.
Bonus Tip: Offer customers as many payment options as possible. While it may increase the setup time and even some fees, people like choices these days, from credit and debit cards to Paypal, Venmo and more.
Before you ever go live, be sure you test your site. Click through the navigation and all the pages. Test hyperlinks (the colored links that take you to other content), click on the buttons, make sure everything loads correctly and quickly. Test any forms you have on the site and make sure that emails arrive in the correct email box from forms, buttons and links. Be sure to test it on a tablet and a phone as well.
If you have e-commerce, do a couple of practice orders. You want to make sure that the order process goes smoothly and that the tax tables and shipping costs are correct. Go through a complete order so that you receive the confirmation email on your end for the order and that the customer receives a confirmation and thank you.
This is an excellent time to have family, friends, suppliers or even a few customers take the site for a test drive to see if they spot any errors or steps that aren’t intuitive or clear. A fresh set of eyes can do wonders, catching something you’ve missed every time you reviewed a page. This is also an excellent time to have someone with proofreading skills go through your site to spot grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors.
Up until now, your site should have had a “Maintenance” message on the home page. Once you turn this plugin off, your site will be live for all the world to see, and it’s time to pop the champagne or sparkling cider.
Unless you’ve been promoting the launch for weeks before your site went live, don’t expect a flood of orders. The search engines take weeks to catalog sites these days, primarily because of the tremendous number of websites being created and updated. In the weeks following launch, you’ll need to use old-fashioned marketing strategies to promote your site and build traffic. This is a great time to offer special “grand opening” specials on your site.
Market your website
Search engines will only get you so far. You need to integrate your website into everything you do from a marketing, sales and communications standpoint. Make sure you add your web address to your business cards, letterhead, invoices and brochures, and add it to the signature line of your emails. Promote the site on your social media channels, too, so prospects and customers know that you have a website and, if you have e-commerce installed, that they can buy from you around the clock. If you have a newsletter or blog, reference the site and link back to it. Do the same with your LinkedIn posts. Keep driving people back to your website, either through links, content or promotions.
Maintain your site
One of the biggest mistakes companies make is spending money to build a site, getting it up and running and then ignoring it. Search engines want to see new content on the site, so tweaking keywords and information will help boost you in the rankings and keep you up in the site results for specific keywords.
You will want to develop a plan for growing your site over time. This may mean a blog or building a subscriber or loyalty program list. If you have e-commerce, it means adding new products, discounting or closing out others, and adding new features as your customer base expands and they request specific features or content. Just as you rearrange products in a brick and mortar store, you want your website to be dynamic and ever-changing. If it helps, put together an editorial calendar to promote holidays or seasonal offerings, showcase new products or services, promote specials and, in the process, keep customers engaged in what you have to offer them, not only in terms of products, but information and even entertainment. Give your customers a reason to come back to your site, even if they aren’t ready to buy yet.
Pro Tip: Always back up your site. Plugins like UpdraftPlus will automatically back up your website on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. If something gets corrupted on your site (which over time is almost a certainty), you can always retrieve the most recent backup and restore the site, its plugins or themes or the underlying database. This plugin will also allow you to move the site to a new server host if needed using the Clone feature.